Jazz musician, Wynton Marsalis, had a great uncle who cut stone for a New Orleans cemetery. On a small stone, he engraved the words, “Don’t Be Discourage.” He ran out of room for the last D. However, Marsalis, who still has the stone, said he likes it that way, as it keeps it in the present tense.*

I smiled when I read this story today in the Wall Street Journal and began to wonder about this man who took the time to carve those letters on a stone so many years ago. What seems like a simple act, has in fact, been quite influential. Not only to Marsalis personally, but it’s now published in a newspaper that has an circulation of over 2 million people.

Why did he carve those words? There are other sequences of encouraging words to choose from: Smile, pass it on; dive into your dreams; let yourself shine, the power of now, etc. Although we may never know his reasons, I would venture to say, that his advice is worth more than almost any other three words put together (with or without the D).

Discouragement is a cruel master. We face it at every turn, whether it has taken hold in our own heart or we’ve had to watch it destroy those around us. There are those who even seek to sow the seeds of discouragement in others, knowing full well that once it grows, they will have relinquished their power and influence.

What’s to be done? I would do what the stone cutter did. I would carve those words in my heart, in the hearts of all of those whom I love and anyone else who has been a victim of anything that tries to defeat love, hope and life.

Besides my figurative carving skills, it comes down to one simple thing. Choice. No matter what has happened to us in the past, we have a choice right now to listen to those three words.

Be courageous. Live in the present tense.
*Wall Street Journal, Jazzy Wynton Marsalis (from an interview by Darrell Hartman)

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances”. — Victor Frankl

The above quote was written by a prominent psychiatrist and neurologist who was arrested and sent to a Nazi concentration camp in 1942. Tragically, his parents and wife perished, but he, prisoner number 119104, lived. He wrote these words after his experiences in the camps and later went on to write, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” voted one of the most influential books in the U.S. by the Library of Congress in 1991.

Frankl also wrote, “it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’”

Over 50 years later, the “pursuit of happiness” is still at the core of almost every endeavor. Google “how to be happy,” and you will receive 2,390,000,000 results. Search Amazon for “happiness books” and you’ll find enough books to keep you busy for the rest of your life.

Ironically, the fervid quest for happiness begets less happiness, increased dissatisfaction and an inability to appreciate life.

In a recent study, The Journal of Positive Psychology asked nearly 400 Americans whether or not they thought their lives had meaning and/or if they were happy. The researchers, examining attitudes toward meaning, stress, finances and having children found that although happiness and leading a meaningful life may seem synonymous, they are in fact, quite different. The psychologists ultimately found that leading a happy life is associated mostly with being a “taker” and leading a meaningful life corresponded with being a “giver.

Perhaps we’ve had enough experience in life to know that this is true without having to read a study. Perhaps not. Either way, we all have to make a choice. What are we going to dedicate our lives to – the pursuit of happiness or leading a meaningful life?

In my experience, those who live to give, to help others, to add meaning, to bring joy, to make what they touch better, regardless of the circumstances they find themselves in and without concern to “find” happiness, are those who lead happy, fulfilling, meaningful lives.